I’d be visiting a number of cities in the region that I didn’t know, but had heard great things about, such as Lucca, or that I had visited before and marvelled at its splendour, like Siena, plus Florence, which I’d longed to see for years.
But we would also see two other aspects to Tuscany during our five-day twin centre break – its famous countryside, and its slightly lesser-known coast.
Many of us have a near romantic association with Tuscany. But it’s the region’s landscape of rolling hills carpeted in row-upon-row of vines, pin-pricked by pointy cypress trees and tinged by orange, pink hues of a burning sunset that resonate most. This is what many of us think of when we consider Tuscany.
Where is Tuscany?
Viareggio was more than a seaside escape, with style and character far beyond Europe’s other coastal resorts
And that brings me to the question of our collective knowledge of this Italian region. Where is Tuscany, and do our perceptions of it meet with reality? Tuscany is in central Italy, across the arc of the Apennine Mountains bordering Liguria and Emilia-Romagna in the north, Umbria to the east and Lazio to the south. But this is no land-locked region as evocative photos of the Tuscan countryside would have you believe.
Tuscany sits on the Tyrrhenian Sea and has an archipelago, of which the largest island is Elba.
Viareggio brings a different taste of Tuscany
But Elba is further south than my first taste of the Tuscan coast, in the region of Versilia. After flying into Pisa we were picked up in our Mercedes by smartly-dressed driver Ugo, who transported us around Tuscany for the duration of our stay. This is an extra service Citalia can provide to travellers looking for a little extra luxury or perhaps those who don’t want to drive abroad.
We were staying at the Hotel Principe di Piemonte, one of a number of Citalia’s hotels hugging this glistening coast.
Modern Viareggio came into being after a fire destroyed many of the wooden buildings along its promenade in 1917. As a result many of its buildings have the Art Nouveau, or Liberty style of architecture, prevalent at the time.
Viareggio became Italy’s most popular resort in the 1920s due to its luxury hotels like the Principe di Piemonte, the Grand Hotel Royal and Hotel Plaza e de Russie on one side of the long promenade. On the other, designer shops back onto beach clubs lining the 20 kilometres of golden sands stretching beyond Viareggio to towns attracting the beautiful people, like Forte di Marmi.
Viareggio’s beach clubs, with names like Nettuno, Guido, Milano, and Amore, keep its beach organised with swimming pools, bars, restaurants, and rows of deck chairs beneath colourful stripy umbrellas. And, sporting a fanciful array of stylised signs in Art Nouveau fonts, they play their part in maintaining the town’s architectural heritage.
And for me, this was much of Viareggio’s seduction. It was more than a seaside escape, with style and character far beyond that of many of Europe’s other coastal resorts. It was a pleasure to stroll its long promenade, the town’s buildings wrapping you in its colourful, early 20th century heritage.
That evening we headed to the marina for dinner at L’Oca where we discovered two of Viareggio’s other attractions.
One of Italy’s great shipbuilding towns, it draws yachties seeking a fashionable port of call and those looking for their next superyacht. And, over a dinner of burrata ravioli with lobster sauce and locally-caught, fresh seafood with fried courgette chips we enjoyed the fruits of the yachties’ playground.
Back at my hotel I settled into my room. The Principe di Piemonte is a five-star hotel with a spa, rooftop pool and sun terrace, a traditional Tuscan restaurant and the two Michelin-starred Piccolo Principe with panoramic views of the coast.
Its 106 rooms and suites are decorated in a different style on each floor. There’s 18th century French, Art Deco, empire, colonial and modern styles. I was in a colonial room, where Indian inspired fabrics hung at the windows and in a canopy over my bed, and an exotic leather-covered the chair.
Coast to city and country
As tempting as it was to flop on the beach, there are far too many great places to go in Tuscany for me to linger in Viareggio alone. I enjoyed an afternoon walking the walls and soaking up the atmosphere of the old town in Lucca, spent a day among the history and art of Florence, and en-route to my countryside retreat, visited Siena to discover its equestrian passions.
The five-star superior hotel inhabits a renovated 11th century monastery near Castelnuovo Berardenga. But Castel Monastero is far from the spartan existence of its early residents. My suite had exposed wood beams, terracotta floors, leather sofas, and a sumptuous bed.
But the hotel came into its own outside the rooms – Castel Monastero’s buildings, oozing character and history from its wishing well to its bell tower.
The hotel is located on a vineyard so alongside views of vines, Castel Monastero produces its own wine, including a Chianti Classico. There’s also a spa with steam room, sauna and various whirlpools, a salt water therapy pool in which you can float away your cares in mineral-rich water, plus it has wellness programmes with a focus on weight-loss, detoxing and rejuvenation.
Another stand out feature is its food. It has a Gordon Ramsey restaurant, Contrada, serving his take on gourmet Tuscan and Italian cuisine. Dining there is pretty special. I had a tasting platter of starters, lobster with tomato gazpacho, pecorino cheese ravioli, catch of the day brined in salt and rosemary, and Napolitan baba with rum, lime cream, black cherry and Strega liqueur ice-cream.
But where Contrada served up a modern take on Tuscan food, the hotel has another restaurant La Cantina, serving more traditional dishes, in a vaulted 13th century cellar.
It was here that executive chef Nello Cassese gave a group of us a cooking demonstration – something on offer to all Citalia holidays guests.
Using the freshest of ingredients he whipped up a pappa pomodoro made with different varieties of tomatoes and bread, plus perhaps the most famous of Italian desserts – tiramisu.
They were, naturally, delicious! But then all the food at Castel Monastero was – from breakfast to my Tuscan dinner, including panzanella and my favourite – pici pasta with pink peppercorns.
Castel Monastero is a treat for mind, body and soul, and a perfect place to wind down in the Tuscan countryside.
Citalia holidays have plenty of contrast
This Tuscan break opened my eyes to the many faces of Tuscany. In just five days I experienced much of its culture from its regal cities to its stylish coast and perfect countryside while enjoying wine and good food.
And this is the beauty of Citalia’s offering. I am usually more inclined towards independent travel – putting together flights and hotels to create my own holiday. But by handing it over to the experts – Citalia has 85 years experience of travel in Italy – I was able to enjoy a much more immersive experience, in just a few short days.
Plus there were other services I wouldn’t usually have – a driver and luxury car at my disposal, city tours to get to grips with the likes of Florence and Siena. There were also local concierges – Dany in Viareggio, Caroline in Florence, and Amanda taking care of the countryside – on call for any query or with suggestions to make sure I made the most of my visit.
But you can also be well armed with information before you travel. Citalia Secrets is a service available to all Citalia customers to give them extensive insights into their destination. It includes restaurant and entertainment recommendations, tips, and need to know information.
For me it was a hassle-free, well-informed way to get the most from my trip, and I left Tuscany with many, many wonderful memories of truly Tuscan experiences I wouldn’t have had without expert insights.
Citalia (01293 731 753), the leading Italian specialist, has a five-night break to experience the Tuscany coast and countryside from £785 per person. The package includes three night’s accommodation at the five-star Principe di Piemonte, in Viareggio, followed by 2 nights at the five-star Castel Monastero, near Siena, both on a B&B basis. The offer includes one free night of accommodation in Viareggio, five days of car hire, return international flights from London Gatwick with Easyjet. Based on departures on 26 September 2015.
This story is from my trip to Tuscany with Citalia in partnership with Captivate. As always, all thoughts, tips and Italian passions are entirely my own.